On the one hand, I would love opera to be popular. Well, popular enough for someone to say “You know, La Boheme is on TV so I’ll just tape the footy and watch it later.”
But it will always be niche. And a recent article by Jennifer Rivera in the Huffington Post prompted me to say on Facebook that instead of moaning about the fact that the rest of the world doesn’t get what we do (or thinks Kathryn Jenkins is an excellent example of it) let’s stop waiting for the opera houses and record labels of the world to give us permission, and just get off our arses and sing.
Why don’t we get up and record our own recitals? Stage our own operas? Create our own compositions? Perform on Ustream to the dinner tables of the world? This is the future of opera. Crowdsourced. Collaborative. Personalised to our audience. Because ultimately if we are gifted with the talent to sing, it is our responsibility to be imaginative and entrepreneurial and get our voices heard outside the opera house.
My friend Imogen Roose – herself an excellent singer – raised a vital point in response to my call to arms:
“For some of us this “outside the opera house” is the vast majority of the work we do, and I have to say that quite a few (ex)colleagues seem to think we’re no longer “opera singers”. An attitude that is a great pity, I think.”
As an opera singer who stood back from international level singing to raise my children, I’ve experienced the same thing. And it is precisely this attitude that is killing opera, slowly from the inside. Aside from suffocating any kind of innovation and entrepreneurial spark, it demeans and devalues our art, our talent, our contributions and our identity. But why do we allow it to flourish? But where does this attitude come from anyway?
I think it’s based on 4 major beliefs we have about the business (I’m sure there are more but hey, it’s early here and I probably need more coffee) :
1. We associate true opera singing with a specific set of skills that can only be measured fully in an “opera house”.
Singing Carmen in an A house demands more vocal athleticism, projection and stamina from a singer technically than singing Carmen in a small hall with a piano or warbling mock-Rossini in a studio to a backing track. So a singer must prove themselves worthy of the name opera singer by actually singing on stage in an opera house.
2. We associate the opera house with a ‘success tag’ – where you sing is a definition of how successful you are.
This is where it’s not just the architecture that defines your success but the opera house’s address. The Metropolitan Opera, New York and Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich will always carry more weight than the New Theatre, Cardiff. (And I think this also goes for record labels – which label has more cachet, DG or Naxos?)
3. We believe that if a singer is not singing in opera houses anymore that this is because they are now no longer good enough to be hired.
We value talent so highly that it’s inconceivable that a great singer may not want to be on the opera circuit anymore. How can you waste such god-given talent, those years of study and application? If a singer is no longer singing in a house, it must be because they are not good enough, or their voice is knackered, their technique faulty, or some such flaw.
4. We associate being an opera singer as more than just a profession but as a declaration of everything we are.
Opera singer as artist, glamorous, diva, prima donna, expansive, artistic, unusual, unique, esteemed, revered, dedicated, self-sacrificial, obsessed… we are peacocks, admired yet enigmatic. No one really knows what we do unless you do it, too. Secret. Undercover. And this is highly alluring and difficult to let go of, especially in exchange for the perceived drudgery of “normal” paid work or the plain domesticity of motherhood.
Again, this small list is not meant to be exhaustive, nor is it definitive. But I do feel very strongly that they shape and influence everything from a singer’s career choices to their overall feeling of personal success and failure.
And it’s important to note that a belief is simply a thought we have chosen to think over and over again until we believe it is true. So many singers would look at the above and declare all of them to be true statements of fact. And in part I agree. But seriously – architecture, postcode, status and scarcity as the true defining elements of a successful career?
I readily would acknowledge – indeed celebrate – the fact that there are plenty of happy and successful singers traipsing the boards of opera houses all over the world. They are happy within the conventions and boundaries of what currently exists, they have balanced their lives accordingly and whether it is conscious or not, the terms for success they have defined for themselves are being fulfilled. And right now, they are the lucky ones because they fit the paradigm that is already in place.
But we must acknowledge for every singer who fits into the system, there are those who are stifled by it. Who are teeming with frustration because the love they have for their profession is seemingly at odds with the rest of their commitments - to their partners, to their children, to other passions, to their intellect, to their desire to abandon the physical introspection and neurosis that is the hallmark of the jobbing singer.
The singers who will be left with no choice but to exchange the glitz of the big houses for the frenzied over-populated ponds of small, regional houses so they can sleep in their own beds at the end of the night. The ones who crave a five day week so they can fly home to see their children for a night or two.
And what about the ones who actually jumped ship and who are now silent?
Thousands of excellently trained singers are out there waiting, aching to define success on their terms and not by the narrow confines of the opera world. They sense instinctively the possibilities of owning their lives more, the power of owning the assets their voices might create, and the creative freedom that the new digital distribution allows them.
These singers still have a voice. These singers still deserve to feel successful outside the conventional paradigm. And they believe, passionately, that opera is not dying for want of an audience. But that it is being killed slowly from the inside by destructive, unimaginative and restrictive beliefs about what the business is. It’s time for a vision not for what opera singing is but for what it could become.
We are desperately looking for role models, leaders, trailblazers… will you be one of them?